=So one of the things that caught my eye this week was that Riot Games released the numbers for viewership for League Championship Series. So during the final showdown a couple weeks ago between Samsung White and World Club. 27 million people watched the final.
And that’s certainly a lot of people. But it’s actually a decrease of 15% compared to last year. Although there was an increase in the amount of time that people spent watching it jump from 40 minutes to 60-something minutes, which obviously is very, very good.
But that decrease in terms of the raw number of people who watched the final obviously was probably a bit of surprise, given the growth of e-sports and the big “New York Times” cover story from a couple weeks ago. So I just want to dive into this a little bit, because I think it asks this very large question about e-sports and who it’s for and where its future might necessarily begun. So first of all, to be totally clear, 27 million people– that’s a lot of people. Totally a lot of people. Obviously, millions of people. But to put it in perspective, the Super Bowl had over 100 million people watch it, just in the United States alone.
And 27 million people would put the championship somewhere in the number 20 spot in terms of American viewership. And this is something that was streamed globally. It would be roughly about as popular as the September 29 game between the Denver Broncos and the Philadelphia Eagles. But ultimately, I think what this signifies is that there may be a cap on the number of people who want to watch e-sports, which I know, for those of you who are fans, might be kind of hard for you to hear. But let me explain why. There’s a core tension at the heart of televised spectated gaming experiences, which is between people who watch e-sports because they want to become better players and people watch e-sports because it’s an entertaining televised spectator event.
I’ll give you a good example. I watched some of the Dota 2 international this summer. And I was there– I wasn’t there. I was in Chicago with Clayton Purdom, the editorial director for Kill Screen.
And we were watching a little bit of this together. And his fiancee walked in and was just totally befuddled about what was happening on screen. She didn’t know where to start, what she should be looking at, the camera jumps all over the place. Obviously, the shoutcasters are giving commentary with words that she doesn’t quite understand. And we were watching the noob stream.
And this is for people who ostensibly are new to Dota 2. And this was very, very confusing for her, because the big problem is that, until this tension is resolved in terms of who e-sports is for, whether it should privilege people we are watching it or privilege people who actually want to get better, I think there’s always going to be cross purposes. So for example, when I watch a game of basketball, for example, I would never deign to think that I’ll become like LeBron James by watching basketball. And if you look at the early history of televised football games, you see something similar. In early televised football games– the first one was aired in 1939. And it was thought that what people wanted to see was an exact one-to-one replication of what it would be like to be at a football game.
So the score wasn’t even on there, which was incredibly useful for people who were walking in. And over the years, over the last 60, 70 years of televised football, they’ve made all these concessions to give spectators information that’s going to make them better spectators but may not necessarily be the information that a football player or a professional or aspiring football player would need to become better at the sport. But you see all the things that Fox has done. For example, Fox has been a pioneer in terms of sports telegraphics. So adding the first down marker so you can see where the first down marker is.
That’s not something you even get at the blackjack game online. All the statistics and stuff that appear at the bottom. Obviously adding the Madden Cam, the overhead cam really gives you a sense of the layout of the field. But you don’t watch the game that way. That’s just to give you some sort of perspective.
Another great example of overcoming obstacles in terms of creating better spectatorship experiences– and this is one of the best– comes from poker. So poker has been around for a very, very long time. But it didn’t really take off as a televised event until the late ’90s, early aughts.
One specific change really marked– it really defined it and really set the sport on its way. In 1995, there was an inventor named Henry Orenstein. And he filed the patent for a hole cam, which would be a small camera which would be placed underneath each of the competitors’ place underneath their two down cards. Now, remember, in a game like poker, you’re able to see up to three cards, which are visible to everyone. And then you have two cards that you and only you are privy to that information.
It’s a fog of war type of technique. And what this little hole cam did is that it gave viewers a sense tension. All of a sudden they had information that the players didn’t necessarily have. And that might not be the best thing for someone who wants to learn how to poker.
There’s other information that might need to be visible on the screen to make people better poker players. But that small adjustment is really what set the sport on its way. And poker journalist John Vorhaus had argued that the invention of the whole cam– it gave omniscience to the audience that’s never had it before. So they could watch a threat unfold in real time.
Each hand could be thought of as a protagonist. And in Vorhaus’s words– this is really powerful– he says, suddenly we could look at poker as an exercise in storytelling. That concession, the idea that what’s most important in a televised sport is the storytelling, the narrative aspect of it fundamentally shifted the way that people began to think about poker. And that’s exactly the sort of concession that I think that e-sports we need to make over time in order to become popular.
I don’t know what that might necessarily be. I wrote a great story about it, about someone who’s trying to make that adjustment. This guy, Drew Harry, who’s a fellow at MIT, who introduced a product called ROAR so you could understand what– it was for fans.
You could understand what was happening. You could sort of hear the roar of the crowd. I’ll link to it in the description. In any case, I think until e-sports makes that concession, as Drew Harry, the guy I interviewed, he had said the holy grail is to get lots of people who watch but don’t necessarily play, because that’s how you end up with a sport as big as soccer. And that’s how you get billions of people around the planet to watch a sport like soccer, is because you get to watch something that you’re not necessarily going to become a part of.
Anyway, that’s my thought. I could be totally, totally wrong, and e-sports will be a billion people next year, and I’ll be eating my hat.